Fostering Innovation in Distributed Teams


Sarah DixonAssociate Copywriter at DistantJob

Friday, March 13, 2020

Are your innovation plans not panning out the way you'd hope? With remote working growing in popularity, it's vital to get it right by fostering innovation in remote teams. Here's how.

Article 7 Minutes
Fostering Innovation in Distributed Teams

Ask most executives, and they’ll tell you how important innovation is to them and the future of the companies they lead. But ask them if they think they’re getting innovation right, and it’s a different story. In fact, in a recent survey by McKinsey & Company, while 84% felt that innovation was important to their growth strategy, just 6% were happy with their outcomes. Worse, many of those weren’t able to put their finger on why their innovation plans weren’t panning out the way they’d hoped.

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Which begs the question - why is innovation going wrong for so many people? If you pop, ‘how do you foster innovation’ into Google, there’s a lot of information out there explaining in broad terms how you can create a culture of innovation in your company. But a lot of it is targeted at those who share the same office space, and the reality for an increasing number of companies is that their teams are distributed across the world. So how do you foster innovation in remote teams?

Understanding the remote difference

Remote teams perform better than their office-based colleagues. A recent study shows that telecommuting, even if that person is using a co-working space or coffee-shop surfing, makes people more productive. There are several reasons for that:

  • Remote workers tend to be happier, as they have a better work/life balance
  • They’re healthier because they don’t have to put themselves through a crushing commute every day - which means they take less time off sick
  • They’re also more likely to put in extra hours at the beginning or end of the day, or at weekends

But it isn’t just a productivity issue. Distributed teams also come with other benefits just by their very nature. Diversity is a big one. When you hire the best from your geographical location, the chances are you’re going to get people who are, broadly speaking, just like you. Cast your net a little wider, and you’ll start finding new perspectives. If you need to amplify the voices of women, people with disabilities, or pretty much any other cultural difference, then hiring remote is a great way to do that. 

It takes a special kind of person to work from home successfully. Not having someone in the next cubicle to call on when things go wrong means that remote workers soon gain resilience, grit, and the capacity for thinking their way out of problems. They also tend to be ‘self-starters’ who take full responsibility for their role - all qualities you’ll find on a checklist for innovators.

Of course, it’s not enough to hire a remote team and wait for the innovation to come pouring out. In addition to helping remote teams find new technical talent, we’re also a fully remote company. Here are the lessons we’ve learned for inspiring innovation in our own fully distributed team.

1. Hire the right people

Remote workers tend to have more of the qualities that you’d associate with innovators, generally, but your hiring decisions are still vital when it comes to fostering innovation. How to spot a natural innovator?

You’ll be looking for candidates who have a sense of curiosity. That’ll probably express itself in a desire to learn, either through formal courses or their own research. They may have creative hobbies or outlets outside of work; writers, artists, photographers, all these people have a spark of creativity that’ll inform everything they do. They’ll also have a passion for detail and might even describe themselves as a nerd in terms of what they do.

When you’re interviewing, you can ask questions like:

  • How do you come up with your best ideas?
  • Can you give us an example of a change you made during your previous role?
  • How can you influence someone who enjoys facts and statistics?
  • What’s the first step you take when solving a problem?

These will help you to understand if the person you’re talking to really has the ‘spark’ that’ll help make innovation happen.

2. The right culture

If you want to foster innovation, then you need to create the right environment where your staff feel safe to bring up ideas that might be off-the-wall, and that won’t happen overnight or with a blanket email saying your office door is open.

First, you need to build a sense of who your company is and what they aspire to do. That’s about more than just deliverables; it’s about having clear long-term goals and vision. Look at Google, for example, their mission statement isn’t about the number of searches or the speed at which they help people find the right answer. It’s this:

"to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”


That’s a mission statement that sets out a clear goal but doesn’t limit their staff in terms of routes to get there.

If you haven’t already thought about company culture, now’s the time to do that; our podcast episode featuring Ismail Aly and Ranya Barakat of the IDS Agency is a good place to start. When you have a distributed team, you have to think differently when it comes to team building, to allow connections to be made across distance. Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Make some time for ‘water cooler chat’ either before or after the business part of video calls
  • Build trust by getting your team to share their accomplishments and issues at meetings
  • Celebrate diversity by learning about each other’s cultures, festivals, and locations
  • Brainstorm a team name and vision statement to create a sense of belonging

Above all, you need to create an environment where saying something risky isn’t going to make people the target of ridicule. You can deliberately foster these sorts of discussions by having a topic like, ‘if resources were no object, we could…’ or, ‘in fifty years time our service will be…’ No one can be truly wrong if you’re having a discussion based on a fantasy, and that’s where the magic can happen.

3. Training and education

We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants. The ideas of people like Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, and Tim Berners-Lee, you wouldn’t be able to read this right now. Ideas are like germs, not only do they spread, but they multiply. Whether your staff are spending time on a training course in real life, learning online or listening to an audiobook, they’re being presented with new ideas which could be just the seed that’s needed to bring about real change for the organization. 

In addition to whatever annual training commitments you have, find new ways to bring new ideas into your team. For example, could you ask a different team member to read a book with ideas about what you do each month and report back to the others? How about debriefing sessions after your latest set of deliverables to find out what went well and what didn’t and how your team think they can improve next time.

4. Be positive about failure

“It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” – Bill Gates, Co-Founder of Microsoft


Often, success comes because we’re doing things in a safe way, we’ve worked out the best way to do something and it’s quantifiable and reliable, and that’s great - but it leaves zero room for innovation.

If things going wrong is a cause for concern or worse, punishment, in your organization then your team will feel hamstrung when trying new solutions. Instead, use anything that doesn’t go to plan as a learning exercise. Create a no-blame culture, where colleagues support each other to find out what went wrong and where that can take you next. We all know Bill Gates from his success at Microsoft, but before that he experienced real failure with his first company, Traf-O-Data.

5. Be ambitious

Perhaps the most important factor in innovation is ambition. It’s about being clear where you want to go with your product or service, and believing that you can get there no matter what obstacles stand in the way. You can bring a team together, from all around the world, representing different genders, cultures, religions, races, and abilities and unite them under the goal to do better. We’re willing to bet they will.

Further reading:


Sarah Dixon

Associate Copywriter at DistantJob

Sarah Dixon is an award-winning author, prolific writer of short stories and is studying for an MA in Creative Writing. She’s also writing for DistantJob, a remote recruitment agency based in Montreal, about remote culture, managing remote workers, success stories.


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